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France

Could Sarkozy be French president again?

media Comeback kid? Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy Reuters/Lionel Bonaventure

To nobody’s surprise, France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy has announced his return to active politics, declaring himself a candidate for the leadership of the right-wing UMP party, which really means he intends to stand in the 2017 presidential election.

After a long build-up, Sarkozy, whom nobody ever accused of lacking media-management skills, announced that he would stand for the leadership of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) on his Facebook page on Friday afternoon, just in time for the evening news bulletins and the next day’s front pages.

Sarkozy announced his retirement from politics after losing the 2012 presidential election but, his Facebook posting declared, the “inexorable tide of despair” engulfing the country has persuaded him to take up the cudgels again and stand for the UMP’s presidency.

Except that his message never mentions the party by name.

That’s because he intends to change the party’s name, image and even its address, one of his allies told the right-wing magazine L’Express.

The former president promises a “huge rally” that will “go beyond traditional divisions”, all of which should be accomplished in the space of three months.

The grand coalition would stretch from Jean-Louis Borloo, of the centre-right UDI, to anti-gay marriage crusader Christine Boutin, of the tiny Christian Democratic party – both of whom served as ministers under him- according to the same Sarkoziste source.

If this sounds familiar it’s not just because all politicians nowadays tend to respond to what Sarkozy calls voters’ “anger … at everything in any way relating to politics” by pretending that they’ve never dirtied their hands with such a sordid business.

It’s also because the UMP itself was founded as a “rally” of the right and centre, with the initial aim of getting Jacques Chirac elected for a second term in 2002.

Background reading: Previous French scandals

That task was successfully accomplished, of course, as was Sarkozy’s election in 2007, also under UMP colours, although neither the party’s name nor his record in office managed to win him reelection five years later.

Sarkozy’s announcement will not be warmly received by many UMP bigwigs.

Two more former ministers – Bruno Le Maire and Hervé Mariton – are unlikely to be popping the champagne corks, given that they are standing for the party leadership themselves.

Former party chief Jean-François Copé and former prime minister François Fillon are unlikely to have appreciated the Facebook posting’s criticism of the “derisory” divisions in the opposition – a reference to their very public battle for the party leadership.

Fillon, currently one of the triumvirate running the UMP following his spat with Copé, has a further reason to be annoyed.

He has already declared his intention to stand in 2017, as has another former prime minister, Alain Juppé, at 69 something of an elder statesman of the right.

But the presidential candidate will be chosen in a primary of party supporters and, according to opinion polls, UMP voters take a different view to the party hierarchy.

If 55 per cent of French people polled last night thought Sarkozy’s announcement was a bad idea, that was because, predictably, 87 per cent of left-wing voters were hostile.

When they were taken out of the calculation, 73 per cent of right-wingers thought it was a good thing with the figure rising to 85 per cent among those ready to nail their colours to the UMP mast.

Dossier - The Bettencourt scandal

In a different poll, 49 per cent of right-wing voters hoped the former president would stick to the same line he pushed in 2012 – when he adopted much of the rhetoric of the far-right Front National - while 31 per cent hoped he would be more right-wing.

The ensuing presidential election would be no cakewalk – although left-wing voters, demoralised by the shambolic presidency of François Hollande, are likely to abstain in large numbers, Marine Le Pen’s new-look Front National is on the up, meaning stiff competition on the right and unpredictable outcomes in both the first and second rounds.

Sarkozy is likely to find the most serious obstacles to his plans in the courts.

He is implicated in no less than seven legal cases – politically inspired, according to his supporters – most of them touching on allegations of corruption in some form or another, several relating to supposedly dodgy financing of previous presidential bids.

Sarkozy now has the distinction of being the first former president to be charged with trying to corrupt a magistrate, an accusation that has arisen from phone-taps that allegedly brought to light attempts to influence the outcome of another investigation.

If he is found guilty, that could mean up to 10 years in prison and a ban on standing for public office, enough to torpedo anyone’s career, even Nicolas Sarkozy’s.
 

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